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Philadelphia Flyers: 6 Reasons They'll Beat Pittsburgh Penguins in 1st Round

Jason SapunkaCorrespondent IIApril 11, 2012

Philadelphia Flyers: 6 Reasons They'll Beat Pittsburgh Penguins in 1st Round

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    Pennsylvania hockey fans have waited a long two years for this matchup to happen again.

    In both 2008 and 2009 the Philadelphia Flyers were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL playoffs.

    This season, the cross-state rivals are the fourth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference; the series will start on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

    This year, the Flyers have the edge on the Penguins.

Flyers Have Road-Ice Advantage

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    No team in the NHL won more games on the road than the Philadelphia Flyers, who totaled 25.

    Furthermore, since the Consol Energy Center opened for the 2010-11 NHL season, the Penguins have beat the Flyers there just once, in the meaningless game that took place on the last day of this regular season.

    Before then, the Flyers were 5-0 in that arena and outscored the Penguins 21-12.

    Philadelphia always wins in that building when it counts and will do so again during this first-round series.

Scoring Depth

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    The Penguins' top-line players (Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal) accounted for 41 percent of the team's total goals this season.

    The Flyers' top-line players (Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr) totaled just 31 percent of their team's goals this season.

    What this means is that Pittsburgh relied on its top line more so than the Flyers did with theirs. In other words, Philadelphia has a more balanced attack than Pittsburgh.

    The Flyers had eight players total more than 40 points this season. Pittsburgh had seven, but Sidney Crosby totaled 37, and would certainly have totaled more than 40 had he been healthy the entire year.

    So, while each team has great scoring depth, the Flyers' attack is more balanced since the top line does not need to shoulder as much of the load.

Defensive Depth Can Stop Penguins Offense

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    When Chris Pronger was declared out for the season, the Flyers lost, in the most basic sense, a net-clearing defenseman who can produce points from the back end.

    The Flyers' inability to clear the net was the most glaring weakness in their defense earlier this season; opposing teams would not only gain inside position to be setup for shots, but were not hindered from getting rebounds there either.

    That is, until the Flyers picked up two big defensive additions in Nicklass Grossmann and Pavel Kubina; both take care of this issue.

    The two men join Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle to form a solid defensive core. If Andrej Meszaros returns, that squad improves even further.

    The Flyers will have to shut down both Crosby and Malkin's lines, but their depth in defensive talent should be able to do so.

Philadelphia Has Better Goaltending

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    If Marc-Andre Fleury is better than Ilya Bryzgalov, why does Bryzgalov have better career stats despite playing on an inferior team for most of his career?

    From Bryzgalov's first season as a starter (2007-08) through this current year, he has a .916 save percentage and a 2.53 goals-against average.

    In that time frame, the teams he's played on have averaged 43 wins per season.

    From Fleury's first season as a starter (2005-06) through this current year, he has a .910 save percentage and a 2.63 goals-against average.

    In that time frame, the Penguins averaged 44 wins per season. This stat is a bit skewed, since the Penguins won just 22 games that first year. Since then, the Penguins averaged 47 wins per season.

    Basically, Bryzgalov has played better and totaled better statistics despite playing for hockey teams that on average, aren't as good.

     

    What about the playoffs?

    Brygalov outperformed former Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastian Giguere in Anaheim during the 2006 playoffs, yet critics hound him for his playoff performance...

    And that goes back to this two playoff seasons in Phoenix.

    Bryzgalov faced an average of 36 shots with a much inferior Coyotes team that played against two Detroit Red Wings teams who were far more potent of an offensive opponent than anyone Pittsburgh played over those two years.

    If Bryzgalov is a bad playoff goalie, why is his save percentage in that time frame still better than Fleury's over the past two postseasons even though Fleury was with a better team?

    Look at 2010 alone; Pittsburgh played Ottawa and Montreal, both scored less goals in that regular season than Detroit, who Phoenix played, yet Bryzgalov stopped a higher percentage of shots than Fleury that season.

     

    What about now?

    Additionally, Bryzgalov entered both of the past two playoffs after playing in 69 (2010) and 68 (2011) regular-season games.

    This year, he enters not only after a lighter workload of 59 games, but on the edge of one of the best second half of the season any goaltender had.

    According to Hockey-Reference.com, after the All-Star Game, Bryzgalov won 15 of 25 games played, had a .929 save percentage, 1.84 goals-against average and five shutouts.

    He was named the NHL's Player of the Month in March.

    In comparison, leading Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist won 17 of 26 games played, had a .917 save percentage, 2.10 goals-against average and three shutouts.

    Fleury is not even close to Bryzgalov with regards to how much these goaltenders have shown an ability to shutdown their opponents heading towards hockey's most important months of the season.

Penguins Were Not Better Without the Shootout

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    If the Flyers are better than the Penguins, why did Pittsburgh finish with a better record this season?

    They did do that, but not really.

    Pittsburgh finished with an overall record of 51 wins, 31 losses for a total of 108 points. Philadelphia went 47-35 with 103 total points.

    However, there's an important factor missing when considering these records: the shootout.

    (The shootout is otherwise known as, "we can't come up with a winner through a five-minute overtime so let's have a mini skills competition for the extra point.")

    The Penguins went 9-3 in this event as the Flyers were a disastrous 4-7.

    Fortunately for Philadelphia, there are no shootouts in the playoffs; teams will play overtime until someone scores and wins the game in a legitimate manner.

    Without the shootout, Pittsburgh drops to 42-28, as the Flyers go to 43-28.

    Sure, it is just one game, but consider this; only the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues had more regulation and overtime wins (no shootout) than the Flyers.

They Already Proved They Can Do It

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    This series can be broken down in a number of different ways, but the most simple form of analysis shows why; the Flyers easily won the season series between these two teams.

    Even with Pittsburgh notching a win in the meaningless game that took place on the last day of the season, Philadelphia still won four of the season's six meetings.

    Their play against the Penguins this season is a promising sign of things to come for the Flyers.

     

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    Jason Sapunka is a B/R Featured Columnist for the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers.

    See his full playoff predictions here.

    He is available on Twitter for NHL updates and commentary (and of course, hate mail if you disagree with the predictions).



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